The day after a Parisian mob had stormed the King Louis’ fortress of la Bastille, he asked the Duke of La Rochenfoucauld whether a revolt had happened in the city. The Duke gravely replied “No sire, it is not a revolt, it is a revolution.” This sacrilegious act of tearing down the King’s symbol of divinely ordained power is considered the start of the French Revolution, and the series of events that would irrevocably transform the future of Europe.
After France’s heavy involvement in the American War of Independence, and decades worth of tax exemption and corruption from the church and the aristocrats, the country faced an economic crisis by the late 1780s. This was felt most keenly in cities that were growing in tandem with the industrial revolution, and the starving Parisian mob had been restless for months. France’s Medieval system of government did not help. Louis XVI – who was a fairly weak King – had no legislative or executive bodies to help him deal with the situation, and the only feeble attempt to create them – the Estates General – had not met since 1614. By the summer of 1789, however, Louis’ kingdom was in a pitiful state, and he called the Estates to Paris. Their conservatism however, meant that little could be done. The First Estate was composed of the clergy, who had no interest in removing their ancient right to avoid taxation, while the second was comprised of the nobility, who likewise had vested interests in resisting reform. The third and final estate was that of over 90 percent of the population, the “common people,” who still bore the brunt of taxation despite their relative poverty. After weeks of fruitless debate through May and June, the outraged members of the Third Estate separated themselves from the rest, and declared themselves the National Constituent Assembly of France.
Unsurprisingly, this development was well-received by the people on the streets of Paris, who formed a National Guard to defend their new assembly, and adopted the revolutionary tricolor cockade, which was comprised of the blue and red symbol of the capital and the white that represented the monarchy. Like with many anti-monarchical revolutions such as the English Civil War, their anger was initially leveled at the men around the monarch rather than Louis himself, who many still believed to be descended from God. As popular support for the new National Assembly and its defenders grew in the first days of July, many of the King’s soldiers joined the National Guard and refused to fire on unruly protesters. The nobles and clergymen, meanwhile, were furious about the popularity and power of what they saw as the upstart Third Estate, and convinced the King to dismiss and banish Jacques Necker, his highly competent Minister of Finance who had always been an outspoken supporter of the Third Estate and taxation reform. Up until this point Louis had been largely undecided about whether to tackle or allow the Assembly, but the conservative move of sacking Necker enraged the Parisians, who rightly guessed that it was the beginning of an attempted coup by the Second and First Estates.
As a result, in stead of helping to defuse the situation, Necker’s dismissal brought it up to boiling point. The supporters of the Assembly, who were now paranoid and fearful about what moves Louis would make against them, drew attention to the large numbers of troops being brought from the countryside to Versailles where the Assembly’s meetings took place. Over half of these men were ruthless foreign mercenaries, who could be relied upon to fire on French civilians far better than their sympathetic native comrades. On the 12th July, the protests finally became violent. A huge crowd marching through the city displaying busts of Necker was dispersed by a charge of Royal German cavalrymen, but the Royalist commander kept them from directly cutting down protesters, fearing a bloodbath. Instead, angered but not cowed, they descended into a general orgy of plunder and mob justice against supposed royalist supporters throughout the city, and most of the Royal troops did nothing to stop them or threw down their muskets and joined in.
What they needed next was weaponry. The revolt had reached a point of no return, and knowing that armed force might be the only thing that could save them, the mob ransacked the Hôtel des Invalides in search of guns and powder. They met little resistance, but found that most of the gunpowder had been moved and stored in the old Medieval fortress of the Bastille, which had long-since stood as a symbol of royal might in the heart of the capital. Though it was technically a prison, by 1789 the Bastille was barely used and housed just seven inmates, though its symbolic value and imposing appearance still underlined its importance. Its permanent garrison was 82 invalides or men who had grown too old for front-line combat, but they had recently been reinforced by 32 crack Swiss grenadiers. Also protected by 30 cannon, the taking of the Bastille would not be easy for an untrained and poorly armed mob. On the 14th July they gathered around the fortress and demanded the surrender of the arms, gunpowder, garrison and cannon. When this was refused, two representatives of the people were invited inside, where they disappeared in negotiations for several hours.
Outside the Bastille, the day slipped from morning into hot afternoon, and the crowd were growing angry and impatient. A small group of them climbed onto the roof of a nearby building and managed to break the chains of the castle drawbridge, accidentally crushing one of their number in the process. When the crowd cautiously entering the fortress heard gunfire, they believed that they were being attacked, and were unleashed in an enraged frenzy. Left with little choice, the Bastille’s guards actually opened fire, and in the ensuing battle 98 attackers were killed for only 1 defender, a disparity that shows how easily the revolution could have been ended if Louis had kept the support of his French soldiers. The men encamped near the Bastille did nothing to intervene, and sheer weight of numbers carried the mob into the heart of the fort. Its garrison commander, Governor de Launay, knew that he had no provisions to resist a siege, and had little choice but to surrender. He and his three permanent officers were dragged out and butchered, and the Governor’s head was displayed on a pike after he was stabbed to death.
For the first time, the King appreciated the severity of the situation after hearing this news. Necker was recalled, the troops – now that their lack of trustworthiness had proved them dangerous – were moved back to the countryside, and Jean-Sylvain Bailly – the former leader of the Third Estate – was made Mayor in a new political system known as the “Paris Commune.” These were revolutionary times indeed. Louis, outwardly at least, appeared to get into the spirit of things and even adopted the Revolutionary cockade in front of cheering crowds. In the countryside, however, trouble was brewing as the peasants heard about the revolution and began to attack their noble overlords – who began to flee as soon as they heard about Bastille. They rightly feared that the uneasy peace between King and people would not last, now that the power of the latter had truly been shown.